A while ago, I was playing Submerged, a beautiful, engaging little indie game when the story suddenly took a turn for the worse and I thought that instead of having a nice relaxing afternoon, I was going to have to engage with media that forced me to think about the inevitability of death and other such lovely topics.
Frustrated, I turned to Tumblr and wrote this:
“Why is there such a trend of beautiful indie games that end sadly? I want grand, triumphant games that end with reunions and relationships and parties. Art doesn’t have to be tragic.”
At the time I didn’t really think much of it. I had noticed the trend (which really extends beyond indie games) and I had voiced my annoyance. I finished the game I was playing. It actually did have a happy ending. I mostly forgot about that text post, until a few months later I played the finale of Life is Strange.
Once again, Life is Strange fell into this trend of games wanting to have a moving and thought provoking story and using tragedy to this end. I remembered the text post and made an addition:
“LiS should have been a game about hope. Instead, it became a story of futility. So many people justify the ending choice because “it’s about how you can’t escape destiny!” But why did the devs choose that theme?
It’s cruel. It’s unfair because so many young queer people could see themselves in Chloe and Max and they saw only what they always see - same sex relationships ending in tragedy.
In an environment saturated with tropes that are designed to make me sad, or have that as an unfortunate side effect, the brave and interesting choice is to make me happy. There’s nothing intrinsically deep about suffering.”
Again, it was a quick post based mainly on emotion, not on any kind of well thought out argument. But the more that I think about it, the more I believe that this trend isn’t just boring, but that it could potentially have negative effects on vulnerable gamers.
Okay, lets take a step back and examine the theme itself. It isn’t, as I initially wrote, limited to indie games. There’s a real trend of ‘dark and gritty’ video games going on at the moment, as though these stories are somehow more engaging, valuable, and/or important than those that address lighter topics. I simply don’t believe that this is true. In general, people play video games for fun, and whilst some do pull off the ‘sad stories that will stick with you long after you’ve finished,’ many just leave me a little disappointed.
Now, conflict drives storytelling. I understand that. That doesn’t mean that the overall message of a story has to be about conflict or futility or loss. Those topics are sometimes the correct decisions for individual stories, and can be done really well in their own right. But it’s time that we moved past this being the default for stories just because they feel they want to say something about the world. There’s plenty of positive messages to be had.
Additionally, the negativity is disproportionately doled out on marginalised characters, such as MOGAI and mentally ill protagonists. For example, in Life is Strange, the choice that seems to be presented as ‘morally correct’ is to let the mentally ill and queer Chloe die to save the rest of the town, leaving the queer Max alone without her best friend and love interest. Alternatively, you can keep these two women together, but only if you sacrifice the whole of their town, including Chloe’s family.
Tropes such as Bury Your Gays/Dead Lesbian Syndrome might be less noticeable in video games because there simply aren’t many of these characters, but it nonetheless carries over into games that do include queer characters, such as The Walking Dead (Matthew and Walter) and the husband of Lt. Steve Cortez in Mass Effect 3 (and Cortez himself if you don’t complete his personal quest).
And it’s not just MOGAI characters either. For example, Until Dawn falls into similar tropes by giving the black character, Matt, the highest number of possible deaths, and making it impossible to save the mentally ill Josh.
These games have other positive aspects when it comes to representation. The Walking Dead does a great job with the black Lee – until they kill him off at the end of the first season. (He is, however, replaced by black girl Clem.) Mass Effect in general has plenty of positive representation for queer people – however it is very likely that any relationship you enter will end in tragedy at the end of Mass Effect 3. The playable characters of Until Dawn are predominantly (5 of 9) women, though in addition to its issues with race one of these women (along with her NPC sister) are killed off in the first chapter. That games which would otherwise appeal to marginalised gamers by showing them themselves fall down into this trope of tragedy is telling about the biased nature of these tragic endings.
And I think that the inability of gamers, especially marginalised gamers, to see anything but tragedy in games likely makes them feel worse about their own prospects. This is where things get a bit science-y, and I’m pretty firmly a humanities kind of girl, but it has to do with Cultivation Theory. Cultivation theory is a thing which is often talked about with regards to video games, usually because people (read: the mainstream media) like to think that it means that video games make you violent. It doesn’t, as detailed by this video that also serves as a good introduction to the theory.
However, to paraphrase that video that I linked, cultivation theory actually applies to all mass media and is a widely accepted theory among academics that simply states that the media that a person consumes affects their worldview. The example that Innuendo Studios uses is “the more violent TV you watch the more violent you may believe the real world actually is, even if the crime rate is dropping.” We also know that absorbing media in which people who are like you (in terms of race/gender/sexuality etc.) are non-existent or only minor characters lowers self esteem (whereas white men, who are represented everywhere, have their self esteem raised by absorbing common media).
It’s therefore not much of a stretch from these two bits of information to suggest that marginalised people absorbing media where they never see themselves ending up happy would be less hopeful about their own lives. When combined with mental illness, which is both portrayed poorly and is, in some examples such as depression and anxiety, more common among queer people, compounding the issue, the problem evolves from something a bit frustrating and boring to something that could be actively harmful.
There’s nothing wrong with a sad ending done well. But marginalised gamers (and, honestly, gamers in general) need to see something else once in a while. This, combined with the increasing representation of marginalised gamers, could have very positive effects on our communities.